Book review from Black Flag #218 1999.
Mike Marqusee, Verso £17 hardback
In 1996, a frail, trembling Muhammad Ali was cast in a starring role in the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics. Ali's role was to light the Olympic torch as the climax of the 84 day Coca Cola sponsored torch relay. In 1960, in protest against the all-American racism which he saw as a mockery of the Olympic ideal, Ali had flung his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. In 1996 he was presented with a replacement medal by, as Mike Marqusee dryly notes, "the Olympic boss and former Francoist, Juan Antonio Samaranch."
Ali attended the Atlanta ceremonies as an American hero. Marqusee's book tells the story of a different Ali, the Ali who consorted with Malcolm X; who joined the Nation of Islam; who "refused to serve America in time of war and as a result was threatened with prison, barred from practising his trade, harassed by his government and condemned by his country's media." Marqusee wants to reclaim Ali as a symbol of resistance, and in "Redemption Song" he succeeds admirably.
On February 25th 1964, Ali, (then still fighting as Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston against the odds to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The next morning he held a press conference and announced his membership of the Nation of Islam: "I was baptised when I was twelve, but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not a Christian any more. I know where I'm going, and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."
"I don't have to be what you want me to be." For Marqusee, those words and Ali's subsequent career, have a resonance that echoes through all of the battles of the sixties. Ali's bravado, his refusal; to allow a white media to determine the limits of his identity, come to symbolise the search for personal freedom of a generation.
Boxing, as Marqusee notes, is seen by a predominantly middle class media as "an expression of ghetto criminality or primitive aggression or some innate human propensity for violence." In recording Ali's dignity and skill in the ring, and his articulate militancy outside it, he marks out an alternative perception of the sport as "a highly structured response to and safe haven from the anarchy of poverty. It is not boxing itself, but its historically constructed social and economic framework which has ensured the persistence of criminality and exploitation."
Sport, generally, is perceived all too often by writers either as empty spectacle or a site of the rituals of commerce. If those who participate are written of as little more than expensive human chess pieces, those who pay to watch are entirely absent from the record. Marqusee's book is important for its recognition of sport as both a real and a metaphoric battlefield for the forces of progress and reaction which contend in society "at large": "The loyalties and identifications are not inherent in the spectacle; the tie between spectator and competitor is a constructed one, and the meanings it carries for either are generated by the histories - collective, individual - brought to bear on a contest that would otherwise be devoid of significance to all but direct participants."
"Redemption Song" gives us a history of the black heavyweight as "symbolic representative" of the black community; detailing the racism endured by fighters like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis as they "wrestled with this ambiguous burden, the burden of making "blackness" present in a white-dominated world." It is Ali, though, whose wit, vigour and refusal to be other than he wished to be, dominate every page.
Ali's relationship with the Nation of Islam is counterposed to Malcolm X's break with Elijah Muhammed and his quest for a "new freedom of political action." At a time when the ban on Louis Farrakhan entering the UK has just been renewed, one cannot help but reflect on Marqusee 's acknowledgement of the significance of the Nation of Islam as being in its linking "the individual to the collective, self-discovery to nationhood."
Marqusee recognises the weakness of the NoI as being its social and political conservatism, its strength residing in its roots "within and against the culture of the ghetto." It is worthy of note, then, that in banning Farrakhan, Jack Straw has determined that black youth in the UK will not be accorded their right to be "free to be what I want." As "Redemption Song" makes clear, so many of the battles of the '60s remain to be fought again.
Marqusee takes us through Ali's fight against the draft, his journeys to Africa, his role as figurehead for the wider anti-war movement. He touches on the development of a pan African consciousness, links in WE Du Bois and Paul Robeson with Patrice Lumumba, CLR James with Bob Dylan and Michael X, and makes the connections between cultural and political upheavals with an exhilarating sweep that recalls Greil Marcus at his best.
"Redemption Song" is a genuinely inspiring work. Marqusee 's wider theme, in restoring Ali as a symbol of courage and radical conviction, is the way in which popular culture can be "simultaneously a vehicle of protest and a vehicle of incorporation." Marqusee intends to reclaim Ali from the marketplace where he serves as an "instrument for monetary gain or national aggrandisement" and pay tribute instead to his "example of personal moral witness, of border crossing solidarity." In this, and in his goal of linking the often derided values of those who fought for change throughout the '60s to the "common future of humanity" he succeeds, with a wit and fervour that are testimony to that spirit of resistance he seeks to uphold.